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New sheriff's team addressing mental health crises in El Paso County

Gazette - 8/5/2018

Aug. 05--While working with a teen in foster care who tried to choke his younger brother, the new mental health team with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office got a radio call to help with a possible barricaded suspect with a gun.

A 20-year-old, on probation for driving while intoxicated and driving without a valid license, was threatening to kill himself with a shotgun and said he'd rather die than return to jail. His grandparents were in the house, at risk of becoming hostages.

Deputy John Hammond, trained in crisis intervention, and UCHealth clinician Robin Schawe started toward the house in the county's southeast side, hoping to coax the man out. The two-person Behavioral Health Connect team responds to calls in which a mental illness crisis might be prompting criminal behavior. They try to divert such people into mental health care rather than jail and help them avoid criminal charges and future crises.

Surrounded by five deputies in his basement, the man responded to questions with short answers and quick scans around the room. "I've had some bad experiences with police officers before," he said.

Suicide prevention resources, phone numbers in El Paso County

He hadn't committed a crime. He was unarmed, and it's not illegal to threaten suicide. So the deputies left, and Schawe and Hammond stepped in.

In the less-intimidating environment, the man opened up.

"No," he didn't really want to kill himself. The shotgun he had cited in texts was "not real." He worried about returning to jail and said sometimes he thought he was messing up so often, "maybe the best thing to do would be to end it."

"Everybody has speed bumps, dude," Hammond sympathized.

The man's face softened as he exhaled with relief.

"If I just have someone like you to sit down and talk to me, rather than all this (expletive) about how I'm a burden and stuff," the man started. "I'm a pretty friendly person. Just every once in a while I have these little episodes."

Because of his troubling texts, the man first would be checked into Memorial Hospital on a 72-hour mental-health hold.

"It seems like any little thing can trigger him, and I'm not willing to take that chance," Schawe said. But the man was expected to later get counseling and other help at the AspenPointe behavioral health center. Though he initially didn't want to go, the man remained compliant and appreciative.

"You guys seem pretty cool," he told Hammond and Schawe.

This is why the team was created, Sheriff Bill Elder said, when announcing the five-year, grant-funded program in July.

"Sometimes (people) are committing crimes, and we have to take them to jail. And we have mental health treatment (in jail) to deal with that, but a lot of time mental health issues are just calls for service," Elder said. "This gives us an ability to attack it in a different way."

Previously, deputies responding to such calls in one of three ways. If the person wasn't committing a crime and didn't pose a risk to the community, he or she would be neutralized as best as possible and left in place without more support. A person who was suicidal or homicidal could be taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation. Or the person could be jailed.

None of those scenarios addressed the cause, mental illness, frustrating deputies as they responded to the same "superusers" time and again.

The new team introduced two better options. Help the people with care plans at home, or take them to AspenPointe for support.

Since the program launched July 1, the team has exercised those options on most of its 30 calls, records show. Four other patients were placed on mandatory mental health holds, one was sent to a detox facility and a man and woman who were fighting were arrested on domestic violence charges.

"Criminal law trumps mental health," Hammond said.

The team has seen no repeat patients.

Team members subdued a veteran with PTSD holed up in his garage and threatening to harm his family. He hugged them when they dropped him off at a hospital for evaluation.

They saved the life of a 25-year-old with a developmental disability who overdosed on a depression medication.

They helped a 16-year-old girl avoid jail on harassment and criminal damaging charges by convincing her to seek emotional support at AspenPointe when her mother lost visitation rights.

"We're here to help," Schawe said.

In addition to connecting community members with appropriate care, the program is expected to reduce the jail population, which last year set a record with 1,794 inmates, about 65 percent of whom were believed to have mental illness.

The office saw the success of the Colorado Springs Police Department's version of the program in reducing service calls and mental health-related arrests and wanted to mimic it, Hammond said. The police program responded last year to 3,116 crisis calls involving 1,880 patients.

"We're trying to catch up," Hammond said.

The sheriff's team operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, Hammond said, but the goal is to eventually staff mental health professionals around the clock, much as the police Crisis Response Team does.

"We see the need," Hammond said. "Look what we've done already."


(c)2018 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

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